29/09/2020 09:07 BST | Updated 29/09/2020 11:48 BST

How Can We Talk About Body Image In Schools Without Criticising Capitalism?

A real silencing of truth has just happened in our classrooms. Be afraid. Be very afraid, writes Natasha Devon.

Last week, the Department for Education issued new guidance for teachers involved in creating and implementing SRE (relationship, sex and health education).

“Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take an extreme political stance on matters,” it reads. “This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation.”

Fair enough, you may be thinking. For most people, the term “extreme” renders thoughts of the far right, or Islamist terrorist organisations (who are, incidentally, already prevented from entering schools since anyone who does is made to sign a declaration that they will adhere to the British values of democracy, rule of law and tolerance).

Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images

It’s the DfE’s definition of extremism which has left me and many other educators baffled, infuriated and a little terrified. For, according to our policy-making overlords, it is now apparently classified as extreme to be critical of capitalism. 

There’s some explanatory hokum about anti-capitalism being inherently anti-Semitic, which is in itself, ironically, a deeply anti-Semitic statement, since it relies on first buying into the trope that Jews are in control of and benefit most from capitalist industry.

It’s clear to me, and indeed anyone with even a nominal understanding of the influences which loom large over the words and actions of the current cabinet, that the agenda here is far from a cuddly-seeming desire to eradicate racism.

In fact, as former Shadow Chancellor John McDonell put it, the measures would essentially outlaw any reference in schools to key events in British history and therefore symbolise a troubling “authoritarianism” within the Conservative party. 

From a personal perspective, these new guidelines present quite the quandary.

For more than a decade now I have been visiting schools and colleges throughout the UK delivering talks and conducting research on mental health and related issues like body image, sexuality and gender.

I do this in collaboration with experts in neuroscience, tech and psychology, who are pretty-much unanimous in their belief that any discussion of how we have found ourselves in the midst of an epidemic of mental health issues, particularly amongst the young, necessitates broader analysis of our socio-political environment. 

Indeed, one of the largest studies conducted into the rapid increase of anxiety disorders among the UK population in the past 10 years, which analysed data from 6.6 million patients registered at GP surgeries throughout the country, showed the root causes of our mental health issues are a lot less individualised than we might think.

The report concluded that factors such as the financial crash of 2008, austerity, Brexit, climate change and social media – all inextricably linked with capitalism – were key factors. 

I do not wish to abolish capitalism, I simply believe that capitalism can do better. Which is, technically, a “criticism of capitalism”.

When it comes to body image, the connection is even more explicit. There is no universal beauty paradigm, other than symmetry, which has been an indicator of beauty in every country throughout human history. Everything else – preferences for certain heights, skin colours, hair types – differs according to when and where it is measured.

Furthermore, standards of beauty are generally hard to obtain. Therefore, in countries with a tropical climate notions of beauty and social standing are tied up with being pale. Here in Britain, where the coming out of the sun is such a rare occurrence it almost always results in a street party, everyone wants a tan.

The more “flaws” the beauty industry can invent, the more money the population will part with trying to “fix” them. The human body has therefore been objectified and commodified in a transparent crusade to keep us apologetic and spending. 

One cannot discuss mental health or body image honestly, or with factual accuracy, without acknowledging these things. 

I should declare here that I’m not a communist either. In fact, the takeaway message of my lessons is that young people should use their power as consumers in the attention economy, spending their engagement and clicks wisely in order to create an online environment which is fairer and more diverse.

I also believe in using fitness, fashion and beauty products for creativity and personal expression.

The problem emerges when industries use us for their agenda (often sacrificing our self-esteem and mental wellbeing along the way) when it should be the other way round.

In fact, I’m more of a subscriber to the Caitlin Moran school – she once famously said: “It’s kind of weird that, under late-market capitalism, we can get 300 different types of latte but only one kind of market-led capitalism.”

I do not wish to abolish capitalism, I simply believe that capitalism can do better. Which is, technically, a “criticism of capitalism”.

You might think the DfE will be savvy enough to make these kinds of subtle distinctions, but anyone who remembers Section 28 – a disgusting piece of legislation introduced by Thatcher which forbade “promotion” of homosexuality in the classroom but in reality led to it never being mentioned at all – will know otherwise. 

Pundits would have you believe the battle for “freedom of speech” should be confined to packets of rice being rebranded, Alesha Dixon’s choice of accessory or Meghan Markle having the audacity to be a woman who says things.

But the real silencing of truth has just happened our classrooms. Be afraid. Be very afraid. 

Natasha Devon is a mental health campaigner and presenter for LBC.